There's a subtle irony embedded in our current national craving for locally grown food: Cities, the antithesis of the countryside, have arguably become the easiest place to indulge in it. The rise of farmers' markets and buying clubs has transformed urban food possibilities and the economic viability of small American farmers. It's a radical shift, and one driven not by market forces or government, but by the work of a burgeoning cadre of activists from coast to coast. Driven by the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, local food, these visionaries are changing the contents of city shoppers' carts from Philadelphia's tony Society Hill to the gritty edges of Oakland, California.

Not Your Average Turnip Truck - Oakland, CA

The corner of Market and Brockhurst in West Oakland, CA doesn’t look much like a food mecca. A small church, a low-slung YMCA, and an elementary school occupy three corners of the treeless intersection. On the fourth corner sits the only clue: a two-story house converted to apartments, bearing a colorful, graffiti-lettered sign declaring, “Be Healthy!”

It’s fitting that the offices of the People’s Grocery, an Oakland-based food justice group, offer the brightest sign of fresh food for blocks.  Founded in 2002 by Malaika Edwards, Leander Sellers, and current executive director Brahm Ahmadi, the group started with one simple premise: Bring fresh, healthy food to the city

“Initially, we wanted to do a grocery store,” says Ahmadi. “But we realized right away that was a huge project beyond our means; we had no business background whatsoever.”

Instead of abandoning the idea, the group embarked on an experiment: Coordinate classes for local youths and adults that combined gardening, nutrition, and cooking, and use the experience to create a demand for fresh goods that could support a small grocery store. Starting with a community garden and teen classes at the local YMCA that taught foodissues and business skills, People’s Grocery soon decided to test the waters for a retail component.

In 2003, the group painted an old postal truck with bright graffiti lettering, loaded it with healthy, packaged foods and organic produce from local gardens, and starting making the rounds in West Oakland—often playing a hip hop soundtrack during the journey. By 2004, the “Mobile Market” served roughly 3,500 of the area’s 30,000 residents each year.

For all the market’s accomplishments, though, it was a means, not an end, says Ahmadi. Without a business background, the group had to build a reputation for handling food marketing in West Oakland, while also convincing local residents to seek out fresher, healthier foods. By all accounts, it was a success, and it came with a surprising realization.

“When we put together the initial product mix, we made an assumption that it had to be foods [local people] knew,” says Ahmadi, who initially stocked vegan cookies and other healthier versions of common items. Instead of luring locals on a snack run, the market ended up filling a niche established by People’s Grocery through their nutrition education classes. “People started requesting tofu and miso,” says Ahmadi, who’d been pushing the ingredients in class. “They came back and demanded products that they [had learned] about.”

Local residents weren’t the only ones buying into the People’s Grocery. The unorthodox mix of urban culture and fresh, organic food out of the postal truck drew press attention, earning the grassroots group bona fides with foundation officers and business leaders.

“The Bay Area is kind of a food-obsessed place, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets to participate, and Brahm’s very good about reminding people that it’s everybody’s right to have healthy and affordable food,” says Diana Donlon, a program consultant at the William Zimmerman Foundation, a Bay Area family foundation that’s been funding Ahmadi’s efforts. “It takes some of the eliteness—the perceived eliteness—out of the local, organic movement.”

And they’re not just sticking to Oakland. Two years ago, People’s Grocery expanded  its two community gardens, adding two acres at an “agricultural park” in nearby Sunol. Today, they employ a handful of youths at the site, paying them wages while teaching them gardening and marketing skills. The increased volume allowed them to sell to local restaurants seeking fresh ingredients, including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. And while People’s Grocery has put the Mobile Market on hiatus, it’s for good reason: They’re planning to open a grocery store by mid-2008.

Bridging seemingly disparate groups may come easily to Ahmadi, whose family fled Tehran three years after the Iranian revolution hit, in 1981. They initially settled on his American mother’s childhood home, a corn farm in Iowa. (His father had been studying agriculture in Iowa to help modernize a family poultry business in Iran; his mother was studying nursing.) They ultimately moved to East Los Angeles, where Ahmadi grew up.

Despite all that city living, Ahmadi’s introduction to American agriculture stuck with him. “I loved it—I loved the land,” says Ahmadi, who had trouble adjusting to American culture. “The farm became this kind of friend to me.”

In his past few years with People’s Grocery, Ahmadi has learned that the key to success is to generate demand—and be able to meet it.

“Education and access are two sides of the same coin,” he says. Having made progress on the first front, they’re working to finish the latter. Says Ahmadi, “We’ve really come full circle.”

Story by Tracie McMillan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Continue reading this series

Soil to stoops: Detroit

Soil to stoops: Philadelphia

Soil to stoops: Oakland

Soil to stoops: Brooklyn

Soil to stoops: New Orleans